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History of Love I: Myths of Love


One of my favorite Greek myths is that of Eros and Psyche. Eros was a god, the son of Aphrodite. He is a handsome young man, not the infantilized version of the Roman Cupid we all know. Psyche is mortal, but so beautiful that she makes Aphrodite, after all the goddess of love and beauty, jealous. So she sends her son to make Psyche fall in love with a hideous creature. Instead he nicks himself with one of his arrows, and falls in love with Psyche himself. He has the gentle Zephyr take her to an amazing palace, with awe-inspiring views, amazing food, and a wealth of treasures. At night Eros comes to Psyche and makes wonderful, passionate love with her. He is after all, the very personification of desire. The deal is, of course, that she cannot look upon his face, given his godliness. While Psyche is totally happy with Eros, she says that she is lonely during the day and wants her sisters to visit, to reassure her parents of her happiness. Eros is more than happy to make the arrangements, though he himself will be absent.

But her sisters convince her that the reason her husband doesn’t want her to see him is that he is actually hideous, and that she needs to betray his only trust, and gaze upon him. When she finally can’t bury the doubt planted by her sisters, she lights a lamp after one of their amazing lovemaking sessions and finds the young god even more beautiful than she ever imagined. But in her awestruck surprise, she spills some of the lamp’s hot oil on him, and he, being betrayed by her, abandons her, aggrieved. But her mother-in-law, Aphrodite, guarantees that she can win him back, after completing some tasks for Aphrodite. So Psyche commits herself, her passion for Eros magnified by her loss, and her misfortune. The tasks Aphrodite assigns her are nigh impossible, but Nature graciously intervenes. Ants help her sort millions of tiny seeds, and an eagle helps her retrieve the black waters of a waterfall otherwise impossible to reach. Finally, Aphrodite has her get a makeup compact from Persephone, wife of Hades, Queen of the Underworld, knowing that no one that goes there can ever return. But the gods intervene, the petulant Eros forgives her for betraying his inevitably violated condition, and she drinks the ambrosia that makes her immortal. She even gets Eros to forgive her mother-in-law, as, now removed from the mortal coil, Psyche will no longer distract humanity from Aphrodite’s beauty. Psyche is the personification of the human soul, purified by passion and misfortune. Personally, I find the Hollywood ending a bit disappointing, and prefer stories like that of Ulysses, who abjures immortality for mortal love. But Eros can’t come down from Olympus. Love is an ideal.

Human history, and the mythologies that have helped power it are, of course, the play within the play of biological evolution. In some ways, history supercedes evolution, as one of the evolutionary developments of human biology is the emergence of an extended childhood. Within this extended development, our massive and socially interdependent brains internalize the history and culture out of which our cognitive and emotional capacities are constructed. I am not the only one who believes that storytelling itself is such a development (On the Origin of Stories), but such learned skills, from repeating a list of things to be remembered, through written language, to computing differential equations, are the real hallmarks of human achievement. No surprise that learned emotional scripts are behind the formation and sustenance of the love relationships which sustain us, and within which we reproduce.

It is a sad and odd truth that the Western tradition, particularly the pedestrian Anglo-American one with which I am most familiar, over-uses the word “love” to refer to phenomena that are perhaps better differentiated. Love is an intentional state, like many psychological states, referring to things outside of itself, but can refer to parents, children, lovers, fast cars, rock and roll, or a good beer. The Greeks had at least a half dozen words, distinguishing between the eros of erotic love, the philia of deep friendship, one variety of which is storge, the love between parents and children, the agape of unconditional “God” love, the ludus of playful love, pragma of longstanding love, and even reserving a term philautia, for self-love. Agape is the unconditional “God” love that the apostle Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13, which almost invariably gets trotted out at weddings: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” This is the passage that ends with “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” The Greek agape becomes the Latin caritas. Those with a Catholic education may know that the Latin fides, spes, et caritas is often translated as “faith, hope, and charity.”

The play within the play of biological evolution, history has a time course of millions of years rather than mere millennia. There are three different biological systems which vary in how they get combined across historical and cultural variations in the understanding of human affection: attachment, caregiving, and sex. Attachment appears in infancy. Once children begin to move around, they risk separation, and develop particular emotional bonds with the parents who regularly care for and nurture them. You can see these patterns anytime you visit a daycare center and watch parents dropping kids off and picking them up. The ones with “secure attachment,” will normally “check in” with parents when they are playing, and protest when parents leave, but adjust the most rapidly, and run to a parent with unambivalent joy upon return. The more “anxiously attached” are much more upset when a parent leaves, take longer to adapt, and while they show joy upon return, will both cling and push away. Intrusive or pushy parents, who ignore a child’s need for independence or quiescence, will produce infants who are uncomfortable alone, but need to push away for space. Distant, unresponsive, or rejecting caregivers will result in the “avoidant attached,” who show little attention to their presence. Though they will cry when a parent leaves, will not go for comfort upon return. Interestingly, there is a whole line of research in social psychology, which began a generation ago with the discovery that very similar patterns of attachment are found in early love-relationships, and have correlates with a wide variety of extra-familial adult behavior. Moreover, a broad theoretical integration of much of this work by Mukilincer and Shaver Attachment in Adulthood argues that in adults, many of the benefits (and problems) of these patterns hold true even vis-a-vis the mental images and representations we have about them. My personal view is that these mental representations may involve some rewiring of the dopaminergic “reward” system I talked about in “Anticipation." This system would certainly underlie storge, but likely also philia.

There is a neurochemistry of attachment. Mothers talk readily of “falling in love” with babies, and can even describe nursing as sexually arousing, Oxytocin is the neurotransmitter which seems to be involved heavily in bonding and trust. It stimulates uterine contractions, mammary glands, and facilitates maternal behavior. It is behind the development of preferences for a mother’s smell. It is also linked to the attachment between mates: species showing pair-bonding show more oxytocin and vasopressin during sex, the blocking of which prevents pair-bond formation. Men with more vasopressin receptors are closer to wives and less likely to divorce. More expressive partners show higher levels of oxytocin, which also correlates with higher levels of eye-contact, disclosure, caring, and validating, and greater levels of investment in a trustee in an economic task. Endorphins, or “endogenous morphines” decrease separation distress, and those with fewer receptors cry less and show weaker attachments. It is interesting that loss of attachment or social rejection are not only experienced as painful, but show neural responses in areas of the brain active with physical pain, and are attenuated by endorphins.

The Caregiving System, which initially motivates us to help and protect offspring, may also be generalized, over our extended childhood, to a wide range of close others. It includes sympathy for the suffering of others, compassion for those in distress, the nurturant love which motivates us to enhance another’s well-being, but also the personal distress of a self-focused anxiety about the suffering of another. Emotional empathy is apparently mediated by the mirror neurons with which we both observe another’s movements and plan our own, and we regularly show patterns of mimicry in the microexpressions following observing another’s facial expression. Infants’ facial expressions are notoriously uninhibited, and we are also more empathic when partners talk more about themselves, or when we ourselves are show more smiling. Note that research on people more likely to help suggests they are better at self-regulating their own sympathetic distress. Since the first and best example any of us have of unconditional love is that of our parents, this is probably the basis of agape or caritas.

We have already talked about the Sexual System a bit in "Full Frontal," but this is the one that relates to reproductive partnering and desire, though particular “turn-ons” may vary (remember “epigamic differentiation”?). Still, there is cross-cultural agreement on the positive value of signs of one’s health history, like facial symmetry, the .7 waist-to-hip ratio, and dispositions like a happiness and kindness, intelligence, and humor. While these personality characteristics are preferred in both of the most common genders, they are weighted more heavily by females. While physical signs of “femininity” are attractive to both sexes (softer, more rounded features, large eyes, and small nose), average levels of male and female features are preferred, and these include signs of maturity in male faces. (Facial Attractiveness; Signs of the Flesh ).

Attachment, caregiving, and sexuality, while mutually exclusive, may be combined in different ways in different forms of affection. Friendships can combine attachment and caregiving, romantic love presumably all three, though we no doubt switch back and forth at different times. Given the classical differentiations, many human relationships have included eros as an important component. Through the history of the world, and across cultures, people get struck by the arrows of blind Cupid, and by lust. Sex has always been a major topic of folk tales, bawdy stories and fables. Popular modern love songs are the inheritors of the goliards, the student poets and singers of the high Middle Age. While he experience of being “madly in love,” has been shared across most societies, for much of history, marriage and child-rearing were relationships arranged by the families of the husband and wife, with varying degrees of consultation with them. Marriage had as much to do with alliance-formation, and the value of extended families in providing the necessary resources for child-rearing. This is still true in much of the world, but in the Western tradition, a different combination of biological systems was constructed and mythologized as part of what we presume necessary, and even project into other historical eras and other cultures for which they are far less frequent, if not alien.

There is, of course a peculiar history to modern Western ideas about romantic love and its role in marriage which hasn’t been especially successful maintaining long-term relationships or family stability. In early Christian traditions, women were full participants, preaching, living in mixed-sex, if chaste monasteries, and the early Middle Ages has plenty of examples of strong female figures. However, as these traditions assimilated Roman misogyny and Platonic aversions to bodily pleasure, marriage becomes forbidden to priests (if not sexuality, celibacy being a later development) , and women’s participation was severely restricted. St. Jerome saw women as temptresses, and Medieval Christianity saw sex as sinful, even inside marriage, and all sexual intercourse was seen as unclean. I love the old therapists’ joke “If sex isn’t dirty, you’re probably doing it wrong.” Virginity was exalted, the immaculate Virgin vs the temptations of Eve. We might note that one of the evolved differences between male and female sexual strategies is that while women tend to use short-term assignations as testing-grounds for long-term relationship formation, men tend to seek out women with different characteristics for one versus the other, the so-called “virgin-whore” complex, though we have to remember that these differences are highly relative. In any case. This left a lot of ambivalence of men toward women, who might be holy vessels of God, yet feared temptations (Pagels 1989).

The clerical and courtly literature of fin amour provides an important response, wherein being “madly in love” is treated as a potentially important motivation, and one focused on the feelings of individuals, which could be valued in their own right. This helps create a conception of individuals having the causes of their own behavior within them, rather than produced externally by the exhortations of Virtue or Vice. Of course, in its ideal form, based on romantic, sexual love (eros), it involved a knight dedicating himself to the love of a lady, which motivated great deeds, and promised powerful reciprocation, but was not to be acted upon carnally. Indeed, the tale of Tristan and Isolde is as much a cautionary tale, where making this love an embodied one involved betraying the very lord to whom the knight owed fealty, and would ruin their lives and destroy everything. Which doesn’t mean these aren’t great love stories, hopes of adultery being common, particularly in the stories of minstrels and troubadours with rather more immoral inclinations. Indeed, the old Celtic legends recast by clerics as the Arthurian fin amour, included the adoption of “how to” dialogues from Ovid, a pagan Roman poet from the time of Augustine. Lancelot and Guinevere’s cheating hearts are no different from Tristan and Isolde’s, no less fodder for the romantic aspirations of the upper classes and urban merchants of the High Middle Ages. Being schooled in an individuality they are increasingly able to pursue, personal feeling can be turned into into the basis of a carnal, romantic, and even spiritual relationship.